What to do if your toddler refuses food
Try the following suggestions if your toddler refuses to eat.
Offer meals and snacks at regular times
As toddlers have short attention spans and small appetites, they tend to eat often during the day. Serve small, attractive meals.
Offer healthy snacks
Small appetites mean that healthy snacks need to be offered between meals to give children all the nutrients they need. Rather than sugary or fatty snack foods try breads, fruits and vegetables, yoghurt or cheese.
If food is rejected
Calmly clear it away. Most food can be safely kept in the fridge and offered again later. Try not to bully, fuss or offer bribes. Food should not be given as a reward.
Give some choices
Children like to have a say in things – this is all part of growing up. So give them some choices about foods. Remember, you set the limits about what choices are available. For example you could say, "What would you like for morning tea – some fruit or a sandwich?" or, "Which cup do you want your drink of water from – the blue one or the red one?"
Make food fun
Food should be enjoyed, even if it is not all eaten. For a toddler, enjoying food means touching, feeling and playing with it. Let children feed themselves. Hands are as good as spoons, even if they are messier.
Set an example
Children will usually want the foods they see you eating – and reject the foods they see you refuse, so it’s worth looking at your own diet:
- Are you adding too much sugar, salt or fat to your food?
- Do you eat too many take-aways, not enough vegetables?
- Would you confidently feed your child the foods you eat?
Remember, low fat and restrictive fad diets are not suitable for children and may affect their growth and development.
Alternatives to some foods
No single food is essential to a child’s diet, and a substitute food can easily be found.
‘My child won’t drink milk’… a common problem
Milk is an excellent source of calcium and protein – but so are many other foods.
- Hard cheeses (cheddar) can be sliced or cut into cubes for a snack, or grated and sprinkled over cooked vegetables.
- Soft cheeses (ricotta or cottage) can be mashed in foods such as potato or bananas.
- Mix with dried or stewed fruits.
- Make into smoothies or frozen in hot weather.
Milk may not be accepted as a drink but happily eaten as custard or a milk pudding. Avoid adding sweet flavourings to milk drinks as it will be hard to get your child to drink plain milk again.
‘My child hates all vegetables’… an even more common problem
Vegetables contain valuable vitamins and fibre, but so do fruits.
Most children will eat some fruits and salad vegetables, and these are good substitutes for cooked vegetables. Children often like the crisp texture of stir-fry vegetables, or they may simply eat a few beans or some grated carrot when you are preparing the family meal.
‘My child won’t touch meat’… another common complaint
Meat contains valuable nutrients like iron and protein, but so do many other foods.
Wholemeal bread, iron-fortified breakfast cereals, dried beans (for example baked beans) and lentils all contain iron. Protein is found in milk, cheese, yoghurt, eggs, peanut butter and beans.
By mixing foods you can easily meet iron and protein needs. For example peanut butter sandwiches, baked beans on toast, and iron-fortified breakfast cereal with milk all contain iron and protein. Having fruit or vegetables at the same meal will help absorb the iron in these foods
Where to get help
Local community or child health nurse
- See inside your baby's purple All About Me book.
- Look in the phone directory under child health centres.
- Visit your nearest child health centre.
Local family doctor
Dietitians Association of Australia
- 8.00am – 8.00pm 7 days a week
- Phone: 9368 9368
- Outside metro area – Free call 1800 111 546 (free from land line only)
- Visit the Ngala website (external site)
Raising Children Network
- A child will eat when hungry
- A healthy child who refuses to eat is not hungry and, therefore, doesn’t need food right now.
- A healthy child will not starve through occasional food refusal.
Child and Adolescent Health Service
This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.